There Malcolm Butler is, leaping in the end zone to break up a potential Nate Washington touchdown in a Patriots victory over the Texans.
And there he was, hobnobbing with Taylor Swift backstage at the Grammy Awards in February. Oh, and with Jay Z, Jamie Foxx, Nicki Minaj and John Legend.
And there he goes, driving the big, beautiful black truck that Tom Brady won as Super Bowl MVP. Brady gave it to Butler after Butler intercepted Russell Wilson on the goal line to win the game.
He’s driving in Foxborough, Massachusetts, which is about 1,300 miles from West Alabama, the Division II school he was enrolled at just a year-and-a-half ago. It might as well be 1,300 light-years away.
Can you think of another planet where Malcolm Butler could have happened? And not like Jakku or Tatooine.
No, it can only happen on Planet Patriot, where Bill Belichick presides and transcendence is an assumption. And when it does, it isn’t always fully appreciated. Other Patriots have had similar journeys.
Remember Danny Woodhead’s story? He tried for two years to establish himself with the Jets. He landed in New England and was so good that two months later he was signing a contract extension.
Stephen Neal came to the Patriots as an NCAA champion heavyweight wrestler who had never played college football and didn’t even know where to stand in a huddle. Three years later, he was a starting guard on a Super Bowl-winning team.
Brady himself went from 199th pick of the draft to Super Bowl MVP in 22 months.
But Butler’s story may rival any for sheer improbability.
“The gap we’re talking about from where he was and where he needed to be was out of the ordinary,” Belichick said. “Are we crossing a river or crossing an ocean? For him it was like crossing an ocean.”
Butler began crossing the ocean in May 2014.
An hour or so after his plane landed in New England on May 16, 2014, Butler was told to lace up his track shoes and run a 40-yard dash. “Yes sir” is how Butler replies to such requests.
Two months earlier he had run an awful 40-yard dash at Alabama’s pro day.
“I was shocked,” he said of his times, which were in the low 4.6 range. “It had to be something I did wrong. Running the 40 is all about technique, but even without good technique I can get lower than 4.6.”
One high-ranking front-office official said his team didn’t even bother to write a report on Butler after his workout in Tuscaloosa.
“He was 5’9.6″, 180 pounds and ran a 4.62,” he said. “He was a reject.”
Given Butler’s perceived lack of speed, NFL scouts stopped returning the texts and calls of Butler’s agent, Derek Simpson. Butler and Simpson discussed options. There was the CFL. There was the Arena Football League. There was life after football.
“I thought it was over,” Butler said.
Seven rounds of the draft passed without a call. The signing frenzy for undrafted free agents came and went. No calls. Finally, when the only players still available were afterthoughts, Patriots defensive backs coach Josh Boyer called. He told Simpson he had one open spot for a tryout and wanted to bring Butler to Foxborough. Butler would have to sign a waiver so the team would have no liability in case of injury.
To call it Butler’s best offer would be misrepresenting the situation. It was his only offer.
Butler hardly was a hot commodity before the Alabama pro day. He began his college career at Hinds Community College but didn’t last long there after a few off-the-field incidents. He was kicked off the team, returned home and took a job for $7.25 per hour serving fried chicken and biscuits at Popeyes.
He eventually landed at West Alabama, a Division II school. His senior season, he made All-Gulf South Conference, but he did not dominate the competition as NFL teams thought he should have.
“Some of his plays were not good plays,” Belichick said. “They’d double-move him, he’d jump it, and the guy would be 10 yards behind him. It wasn’t like every play was an interception that was run back for a touchdown. But he tackled well.”
He also ran pretty well, which Belichick noted when he was watching tape while preparing for the draft.
“We talk about that a lot, playing speed versus timed speed,” Belichick said. “I would say he played faster than his timed speed on tape from West Alabama. He showed good playing speed. But you have to be careful because it’s not like he was playing against SEC receivers.”
Fresh off the plane in New England, Butler ran a 4.54.
The next day, he was in one-on-one drills against a receiver who had been in the league for a couple of years. Butler had an interception. The next day, as he was in the locker room preparing for his second practice, Butler was summoned to the team offices. Belichick had seen enough. The Patriots waived linebacker James Morris to create a roster spot.
“The bigger factor was just watching him play,” Belichick said. “When we watched him play, immediately, you are like, this guy has some skill. He’s explosive, he has a good short-area burst, he runs. After one practice, we said, ‘We should sign this guy.'”
In August 2014, the Patriots and Redskins practiced together at the Redskins’ camp site in Richmond, Virginia. Butler would be tested byDeSean Jackson, a three-time Pro Bowler, and Pierre Garcon, who led the league in catches the previous year. And they would be tested by him.
Teammates were watching, and they came away impressed. “In the release drills and the one-on-ones, he was holding his own against DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon,” Patriots wide receiver Brandon LaFell said. “That’s when I noticed he was kind of special.”
Butler had been creating a buzz in the Patriots locker room all offseason. Before the veterans even showed up, he intercepted Jimmy Garoppolo with an over-the-shoulder catch. Many more interceptions followed.
Despite an obvious lack of savvy, the plays he kept making pointed to innate abilities that most players—even NFL starters—wish they had.
“He runs the route the same way a receiver runs it, and that’s a rare thing for a corner,” Garoppolo said. “Usually they are a step behind the receiver. From the get-go he was noticeable.”
In those early days, safety Devin McCourty observed another unusual trait.
“When he turns his head, he can look back for the ball and actually get faster,” he said. “That’s rare.”
It didn’t matter who he was assigned to cover in OTAs. From LaFell to Julian Edelman, Butler would be strapped onto them. Hence, his teammates stopped calling him Malcolm. His new name was “Strap.”
The day before final cuts, Belichick approached Strap.
“You have a place to stay?” Belichick said.
“No sir; I don’t,” Strap said. “I’m in the team hotel, and I don’t know if I’m going to be around.”
The coach’s response: “Oh, you are going to be around.”
On the Friday before the fifth week of the 2014 season, Butler was playing with the scout team when he picked off a pass in practice. The next week in preparation for the Bills, he intercepted another. The following week, he did it again in advance of the Jets.
On and on his Friday interception streak went for weeks until late in the season, according to the recollections of teammates.
“We were getting mad at him,” LaFell said. “At first it was, ‘What you doing?’ Then it was a joke. Then we got on a win streak. We noticed every time we won a game, Strap had a pick on Friday. So he needed to keep picking these balls on Friday so we keep winning these games.”
The 2014 season was supposed to be more about education than production for Butler. And it was. Five Patriots cornerbacks had more playing time than he did. He was a healthy scratch for multiple games in the middle of the season.
Even though he was capable of making big plays in practice, often against maybe the best quarterback ever to grace a football field, he still had so much to learn.
Belichick and Boyer put a lot of time into developing Butler’s mind, working one-on-one with him and assigning regular homework projects for him.
“With him, a lot of it was discipline, eye control and experience,” Belichick said. “He had to understand situations, putting things together, how to handle bunch groups and stacked receivers.”
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
At West Alabama, the only thing Butler had to know when he took the field was whether the coverage was Red, Blue or Green. Suffice it to say, much more was on his mind when he was staring down Ricardo Lockette with the Super Bowl on the line.
The Patriots had run the same play three days earlier in practice, and Josh Boyce had beaten Butler for a touchdown. He was told what he did wrong, and he did not make the same mistake twice.
“I’m just telling you, there were like a thousand of those situations like that with him last year,” Belichick said. “It’s inexperience, a young guy, a new system.”
Butler’s acclimation went beyond learning to avoid rubs and figuring out how to master the finer points of the backpedal technique. This wasn’t just defensive back coaching. It was life coaching.
The day before OTAs began last spring, Butler was scheduled to fly to New England. Weather problems led to a cancelled flight, and he subsequently missed the first practice. Belichick sent a message, holding out Butler from the next six practices—just to be sure, you see.
“Culturally, West Alabama and New England couldn’t be more different,” Belichick said. “The weather, lifestyle, public, demands of the football program, demands of the operation, the length of season, the length of each day, the amount of concentration that’s needed through the course of each day from meetings to walkthroughs to practice to post-practice film to having an assignment or project to do at night. At West Alabama, you put on your uniform, go out there and play, go back to the dorm, play video games and goof off. So his development was on a lot of levels.”
Despite the initial deficiencies in Butler, Belichick quickly recognized that this was the type of clay he could work with.
Butler had just been beaten on one of the most memorable catches in Super Bowl history. Falling backward, he tipped Wilson’s pass into the air. Seahawks receiver Jermaine Kearse fell on his back, and the ball bounced off his leg and into his hands.
In the moments that followed on the sidelines, Butler did not look shaken. He looked focused.
Ty Law is in the Patriots Hall of Fame. He went to the Pro Bowl five times. His interception of Kurt Warner in Super Bowl XXXVI was one of 59 in his 15-year career.
Belichick compares Butler’s mentality to Law’s.
“He’s competitive, very competitive,” Belichick said. “He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and he has a short memory like Ty did. You could beat him on any route, it doesn’t matter. He’s going to come back the next time, and he’s not going to be sitting there thinking, ‘He beat me on this.’ He’s just going to compete on the next play. He’s not scared. He’s confident. He’s going to go and play competitively and aggressively. You can’t faze him.”
Some might consider having a short memory a curse, like an arthritic knee. Butler considers it a blessing.
“You have to forget to make it in this league,” he said.
Butler wiped his memory of Kearse’s catch, and two plays later, he made one of the great interceptions in Super Bowl history, flipping the script on a game for the ages.
Another, less famous example: It was Nov. 15, Patriots at Giants, and on the Giants’ second play from scrimmage, Odell Beckham Jr. got past Butler on a fade route and then broke a McCourty tackle and scored on an 87-yard touchdown.
The wonderful amnesia kicked in again.
Shadowing Beckham throughout the game, Butler played him like Law might have, allowing just three catches on 10 throws. On the Giants’ final drive, Eli Manning found Beckham in the end zone, but Butler swatted the ball out of his hands before Beckham could establish possession.
When the Patriots completed their 2014 player evaluations, Belichick came to a somewhat stunning conclusion.
“We felt Malcolm could be our best corner in 2015,” Belichick said. “Was he our best corner at the moment? You could have argued that. But with another offseason, another training camp, we felt he should be our best corner. Now, did we know he was going to do this? No. There was a little bit of he should be, we think he’s going to be, but we’ve got to see.”
So the Patriots allowed superstar cornerback Darrelle Revis to walk. Butler inherited his left cornerback job, and Revis got a $16 million salary from the Jets for 2015—nearly $15.5 million more than the Patriots are paying Butler this year.
Belichick lined up Butler against Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown in the opener and has used him to shadow many of the game’s best playmakers since. According to Pro Football Focus, Butler’s coverage grade of 5.8 is more than twice as high as Revis’ 2.6.
Gregory Payan/Associated Press
“You can’t replace Revis,” Butler said. “I knew that. Because he was in that role last year, people expect me to be Revis. To me, it’s a Malcolm Butler role I’m playing, not a Revis role.”
To everyone else, it’s a Revis role.
What did Belichick see in this young man to take such an extraordinary leap of faith?
“He can match up, and he can match up against a lot of different players,” Belichick said. “Even though he’s small, he jumps well. He plays the ball well. He plays bigger than his size. He’s a good tackler. He matches up against quick guys like [Danny] Amendola and Edelman because of his quickness.”
If you should encounter Butler, you won’t think “football player.” He is a normal-sized human being. His features are delicate; his smile is shy.
Do not trust your eyes.
“For a player of his stature to be able to compete against bigger receivers and make play after play after play is a great testament to him,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “A great competitor is what you see, and that’s something you can’t coach. But it’s also a testament to his coaches, Bill Belichick, [defensive coordinator] Matt Patricia, and all of them for the way they developed him and taught him.”
Belichick and Patricia, and the whole Patriots organization, deserve credit for sure. They guided Butler across an ocean, and he had the determination to make it all the way to the other side.